I’ve had the opportunity since rehab began to see a few films here at the hospital. Most of them have to do with the DVD Column or just personal motivation. But when I received a very rare screener for THE ILLUSIONIST (2010) by Sylvain Chomet, as adapted from an original Jacques Tati screenplay… I was ecstatic.
I’ve watched it 3 times – and having watched TOY STORY 3 (3 times) and HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (3 times) – I believe I can say with absolute personal authority, that THE ILLUSIONIST is the very best animated feature in competition for the Oscar.
Well, both TOY STORY 3 and HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON are exceptional, thoroughly entertaining commercial animated films. There’s a clinical cleanness to it all which makes it absolutely like watching moving candy. It’s sweet to the eyes. Both films well up emotions, but there’s so much more that THE ILLUSIONIST does in it’s oh too brief running time.
Tati was a comedic genius, but when paired with the astonishing particular quirky genius of Sylvain Chomet, whose TRIPLETS OF BELLVILLE blew me away… well it creates something entirely beyond anything Chomet has done to date.
Residing within THE ILLUSIONIST is the soul of Charles Chaplin. This isn’t a silent film, the sounds are wonderful and in its own particular way musical. What you don’t really have, is dialogue. Any that you hear is incidental. Instead, everything is told in gestures, expressions, body language and action… the forte’s of animation.
I’ve often talked to Cartuna about how much I love that we’ve conspired on hundreds of animations without ever resorting to the cheapness of sound for a gag. But watching THE ILLUSIONIST – I found myself no longer recouping in a hospital rehab bed, but with my chubby chin upon the back of a theater seat, sitting on the edge of my own with a blissful smile pasted and growing consistently throughout the experience.
So much of what the film is – is left to the viewer for interpretation. At least on the print I was sent, there were no subtitles, but like I said, there’s not really any dialogue, and what dialogue there is – is actually words in the various languages that I’m actually versed in. How convenient.
The film is about an older magician working on the edge of irrelevance. Rock n Roll is beginning to take the stages away from the Vaudeville and antiquated acts of old. The tumblers, the ventriloquists and the illusionists are all finding it increasingly difficult to get any kind of paying gigs.
In one particularly sad gag, you see our titular character prepping off stage, excited to go out after a popular band, that just continues to play encore after encore… and when he finally does take the stage, the teeny bopping audiences have fled to try to rip the clothes off of the band members, leaving him in an enormous, mostly empty theater with folks that don’t really care at all about the magic he is performing – and yet he still performs beautiful magic. The Presto-digitation of this magician is simply a wonder. As someone that was a stage magician’s assistant throughout my youth, I can appreciate and see what it is they are animating. Sleight of hand is an artform. One, as beautifully unique as any form of martial arts or dance. This Illusionist is a master. Whomever they based his movements upon was also amazing.
The Illusionist leaves the big city for an island community and what seems to be a gig in a pub. He feels fantastic, as the crowd eats up his every gag – and then there’s this one particularly curious girl that he constantly performs a bit of magic for. Constantly delighting her. We’re led to believe that this is his daughter – and when he goes to leave, she goes with him, back to Edinburgh – and …
Let me stop there.
Before I can continue there’s something I must convey. Unlike TOY STORY 3 and HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON – THE ILLUSIONIST has the capacity to convey atmosphere. I have never been to Scotland, but Edinburgh – after watching it has become a place that I must travel to in my lifetime. You feel like you can smell this place. Like you can breath in the quality of the air. That might have to do with the fact that I use New Zealand Springs Febreze, but you can see the wind constantly blowing – the clouds never cease to cast moving shadows over the landscapes – the blades of grass flowing, the ocean moving and the whole place is alive.
This is very in keeping with the world of Tati. If you’ve seen his PLAYTIME or any of his films – they tend to be visual beyond all else. Orchestrated bliss. Because the film isn’t about dialogue and conversation – it is about observation and analysis.
The film requires you to pay attention and to think. To interpret what you see and find meaning in what you’re seeing. This isn’t a spoon fed children’s tale, with large emotionally stacked scenes… this is a story about the sadness of progress, one out-living one’s usefulness, the shame of working in a job you do not love to earn end’s meat. This is a poverty tale about the loss of dreams.
Last night on Twitter, I had a person write me that said his passion for writing about music was killed by his ex-wife, and I wrote him to say – the good news is she’s your ex-wife, what’s your excuse now?
Movies like THE ILLUSIONIST are wonderful cautionary tales about becoming obsolete, losing your dreams and being ashamed of who you are becoming. It’s not as heartwarming as a group of toys living a new life with a new kid… or a boy that makes peace between a Viking village and the Dragon menace… but THE ILLUSIONIST has truth, the real heart-ache of existence, the brilliant whimsy of pathos and through animation – it captures an impression of reality that is so intensely beautiful and magical that it will make you dream of Edinburgh.
I’ve managed to write of this brilliant film without giving away the awesome gallery of supporting characters that make this film so magical. Discover this film. Go with eyes ready to soak in the story. I truly feel for the people that can’t see the genius of this movie, but for those that can – there will be few richer experiences ahead of you this year… unless we’re extremely lucky. This is magic.